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World Bird Man of Soweto a symbol of an evolving economy in South Africa’s biggest township


The Bird Man's view of a revitalized township

Tourism, such as Raymond Rampolokeng's guided tours for ornithology enthusiasts, is a vital part of the new opportunities that generate economic growth in South Africa's biggest and most famous township

Raymond Rampolokeng, seen on Dec. 15, has been leading bird-watching tours in Soweto, South Africa, since 2007.

As a boy growing up in Soweto in the dying years of apartheid, Raymond Rampolokeng could taste the toxic air: a bitter combination of smog from the coal-fired power plant and tear gas from the police attacks on protesters.

Today, the power plant has been shut down. Its giant towers are covered with colourful murals of musicians and liberation heroes. Bungee jumpers leap from the top. And at the bottom, Mr. Rampolokeng meets tourists for his bird-watching tours.

"Visitors are gobsmacked when they see the lifestyles that Sowetans are living," he says. "It's not just crime and murders and gloom and doom. You can join a cycling club, go on a park run in one of the parks or attend a music festival."

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Tourism, led by creative entrepreneurs such as Mr. Rampolokeng, is a vital part of the new opportunities that generate economic growth in South Africa's biggest and most famous township, home to an estimated 1.25 million people.

In the streets that were once the site of violent police crackdowns and anti-apartheid marches, there are now guest houses and museums, trendy restaurants, Airbnb rentals, shopping malls with luxury boutiques, a spectacular new theatre, an 18-hole golf course, a wine festival and an annual gay Pride march.

"It's exciting to see people admitting that their preconceived ideas were wrong," Mr. Rampolokeng says.

"Tourism has greatly changed the economy of Soweto. You see more young people getting jobs in restaurants or guest houses, or selling art to tourists. The air is fresh, the pollution has disappeared and we have hope of a better country."

A spectacular new theatre is among the recent additions to Soweto.

Mr. Rampolokeng, known locally as the Bird Man of Soweto, brings tourists on walking tours of the township several times every week, showing them some of the 68 different bird species that he has found in the wetlands and hills of the sprawling community.

On a recent stroll with The Globe and Mail, he spotted 23 species within an hour. Southern masked weavers, bright yellow in their breeding colours, darted among the reeds of the power station's former dam to gather strands for their nests. Southern red bishops puffed themselves up to attract a mate. Reed cormorants, black-headed herons and moorhens splashed in the water. An African sacred ibis soared across the sky.

"Birds are an indicator of the happiness of an ecosystem," says the 43-year-old guide, who has been leading bird-watching tours here for the past decade.

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He points to a busy township road, just past the wetlands. "It's amazing to see this traffic and then see these beautiful birds in the middle of Soweto," he says. "Who would have thought it?"

Mr. Rampolokeng was unemployed when he first met members of a local bird club during a volunteer cleanup of an abandoned reservoir in the township. Club members helped him enroll in a month-long training course at a popular birding destination in an eastern province of South Africa. He landed a job at a bird sanctuary in Johannesburg and then began working for BirdLife South Africa, a national birding group.

He launched his Soweto tours in 2007, earning enough success to support his family and gain local fame. He also leads cycling tours of Soweto's 25 kilometres of cycling paths and he plans to expand into bird-themed merchandising.

Townships such as Soweto begin with a huge disadvantage: They were never intended to be functioning economies. They were built by the apartheid state as dormitory towns, segregated from the white suburbs. Their sole function was to provide cheap black labour for white-controlled mines and industry. They lacked asphalt roads and running water. The people of Soweto didn't even have access to the giant power plant in their midst – the electricity was for the white suburbs only.

Raymond Rampolokeng shows tourists some of the 68 different bird species that he has found in the wetlands and hills of the sprawling community of Soweto.

Restricted to remote locations, the township residents were forced to commute long distances to their workplaces. (Soweto, a syllabic abbreviation for South Western Townships, was built about 20 kilometres southwest of Johannesburg's city centre.) Even today, many residents still commute on dangerous minibuses for several hours a day, spending up to 40 per cent of their income on transport.

Such townships were a form of geographic apartheid that persists to this day. Soweto, for example, contains about 40 per cent of the population of the greater Johannesburg region, yet it contributes only about 4 per cent of the region's economic output. Its consumers spend an estimated $500-million annually, but 75 per cent of this is spent outside Soweto.

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While those obstacles remain, there is a growing effort to strengthen the township economies. A study by the World Bank in 2014 called for a "catch-up strategy" of integrating the townships into a larger urban economy, capitalizing on the comparative advantages of the townships: an abundance of labour and affordable land, and an untapped consumer market.

Mr. Rampolokeng has no illusions about the economic barriers in Soweto. On his bird-watching tours, he walks past the ruins of an another abandoned power-plant building, which collapsed in 2014 after thieves stripped metal and cable from it. Old mine dumps are visible on the horizon. He doesn't dare to take his tourists to one of Soweto's best birding sites because muggings are too common there.

But while much of Soweto is still impoverished, there is an emerging middle class and even a wealthy elite here, and tourism is one of the keys. Just outside the collapsed power plant is an adventure-tourism business, renting quad bikes and paintball gear to visitors. Tour buses arrive daily on Soweto's Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize laureates – Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu – once lived.

"We see tourists from the northern suburbs now who were previously scared to come here," Mr. Rampolokeng says. "Soweto has become a benchmark for other townships. We can show them how to benefit from economic spinoffs."

Raymond Rampolokeng's
five favourite birds in Soweto:

Cape sparrow

A humble and common bird, it has become the official logo of Mr. Rampolokeng's bird-watching business. He often sees Cape sparrows outside his kitchen door, tame and cheerful, and feels a connection to them.

African hoopoe

One of the most spectacular birds in Soweto, with a chestnut colour, black-and-white wings and tail, and a distinctive "crown" of feathers.

Orange-breasted Waxbill

Africa's smallest finch, and probably the rarest bird in Soweto, it has become Mr. Rampolokeng's drawing card among bird aficionados. He says he loves the excitement on their faces when he finds one for them.

Barn owl

Normally found in the wilderness, they use Soweto's tall light masts to hunt for rodents. In the old days, many South Africans were afraid of owls, believing they signified witchcraft and death, but today owls are increasingly protected in the township, with schools erecting owl boxes to shelter their nests.

House sparrow

Another humble bird, but one of his favourites. "They're the most underrated bird," he says. "You can find them in the garage or in the fields. We take them for granted, but they're overlooked too much."

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